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Wilde_by_Linnea_Covington_8.jpeg Linnea Covington

Denver restaurateur Lydie Lovett discusses her move from fast casual to full service

The former chef and owner of Chicken Rebel now offers California cuisine, and fried chicken, at Wilde

Lydie Lovett spent several years building a loyal following for Chicken Rebel, her fast-casual fried chicken concept which she grew to three units. But now, as many operators enter the fast-casual space, she has move in the other direction with a full-service restaurant, Wilde.

Starting a brand from scratch is a challenge, she said. She went from having more than 20,000 followers on social media for Chicken Rebel to around 2,500 at Wilde, which she opened last October. She said getting the word out that Wilde is the same owner of Chicken Rebel has proved harder than anticipated.

The chef had come to Denver in 2017 to buy a food truck, with the idea she would bring it home to the West Coast. Turns out she got roped into a scam, and the truck was all but useless. Still, Lovett showed grit and started selling fried chicken sandwiches at breweries, eventually opening a semi-stable spot at a small food hall. There she used the broken truck as the kitchen and gained a following. Then she moved to a larger food hall, Avanti.

From there Lovett opened the first stand-alone Chicken Rebel in Denver at the end of 2021, and a few months later she launched one in the suburb of Westminster. By that summer she had three spots, all fast-casual and serving the signature fried chicken, as well as thick milk shakes and loaded tater tots. Now, she has moved away from that successful concept and launched a full-service spot focused on breakfast, brunch and lunch, allowing Lovett to go back to her roots as a chef, as well as touch on the southern California cuisine she grew up with.

The Westminster Chicken Rebel is still open for now, but Lovett said she plans on closing it soon. Lovett recently discussed why and how she rebranded, as well as what it's like shifting from fast-casual to service-forward dining.

What was the driving force behind opening Wilde?

I wanted to tap into my San Diego roots, I grew up in Encinitas, one block from the beach. I also love brunch. So I sort of combined the two. I have a great space and great landlords and I wanted to utilize the space for more dine-in, as Chicken Rebel had become primarily a to-go operation during and post COVID times. 

As you looked at closing Chicken Rebel locations, why did you open a totally new restaurant rather than change your original concept?

A number of factors have contributed to this. Specifically, the rising food and labor costs while still trying to maintain a quick-service price point has proved difficult. So is providing value to the consumer while also covering overhead. It has become a struggle for a one-person owned and operated business.

[There's also the] competition. It seems as though everyone is doing a fried chicken sandwich, including sit-down restaurants. A Dave’s Hot Chicken recently opened within a mile of Chicken Rebel, and that has hurt tremendously. Without adequate cash flow it’s challenging to maintain competitive marketing efforts to set us apart from the flock, pun intended.

What were some challenges when it came to rebranding?

Building a brand from scratch is always a challenge. Chicken Rebel started from a very grassroots level as a food stand at farmers' markets in San Diego, so it was critical to build relationships with our guests. I loved being able to take a customer's order, make their food, and chat with them. It creates something special and unique, which a full-service restaurant might not be able to do.

However, I believe the best marketing, no matter what level your business is at, is connection. Connecting with your customer and community is how you build a following and a brand. Although at Wilde I’m primarily at the heart of the restaurant, the kitchen, I make it a point to greet customers, run food, and occasionally make a cocktail in order to make those connections.

You mentioned before that fans of your original concept wanted the fried chicken on the Wilde menu, Were there other aspects of Chicken Rebel customers asked for?

We get the occasional loaded tot request, but it's primarily all about the chicken. It's a great opportunity to tell the customer we still make the same great chicken that can be found in our chicken and waffles ($18), the [Nashville hot chicken sandwich ($17)] and the hot honey chicken biscuit ($17). Most customers welcome the change and are happy with the more elevated spin on their favorite chicken. 

Do you plan on keeping the Chicken Rebel brand around for future use?

Chicken Rebel will always exist in catering. We do about four catering orders per week and have built up nice catering packages on EZ Cater. I will probably consider bringing back the food truck for catering and events and because I’m crazy, but really that’s where Chicken Rebel had the most success and where I was the happiest.

What challenges are you facing running a full-service restaurant right now? How is that the same or different than the fast-casual model?

Consistency in customer service has always been a challenge. Brunches can get busy with long wait times and it's important that we make each and every customer feel valued and relaxed, as the vibe of Wilde is relaxed and chill.

We try to hire servers who don't take themselves too seriously and want to connect with our community. I'm happy to say we have the most amazing staff! Keeping it that way is a challenge, so hiring the right people is everything. My partner, Jess, is way more of a people person than me and has been fantastic in creating a vibe where both our employees and customers feel like family. 

The biggest challenge has been finding back-of-house staff. I think a lot of quality cooks are looking for dinner service, so finding those who want to cook lots of eggs, and in so many different ways, has been tricky. Our food at Wilde is a lot more complicated than at Chicken Rebel. There’s a lot more variety to the menu.

With Chicken Rebel, I was able to develop many systems and processes to make execution easily trainable and scalable. I am still figuring this out for Wilde. In the meantime, I have been the only cook since opening. I’m working to move away from that so I can build the business, however I have an opportunity to figure out ways to improve the dishes as well as the execution, not to mention it's quite a good workout every weekend.

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